President Donald Trump has accused his Democratic rival Joe Biden of having connections to the “radical left” and has pilloried his relationship with China, his record on criminal justice, his plans for the pandemic and even his son's business dealings.
But in a kitchen-sink offensive backed by a mountain of campaign cash, the 74-year-old Trump has so far invested in one line of attack above all: the charge that his 77-year-old opponent is too old and mentally weak to be an effective president. The attack has drawn cries of ageism, and there is evidence it may be ineffective. Shrugging off the risks, Trump’s team is pumping millions of dollars into the broadside and vowed this week not to back off.
With Election Day less than four months away, Trump has spent more money on one television ad claiming that Biden lacks “the strength, the stamina and the mental fortitude to lead this country” than any other single ad this year.
The 30-second spot and its Spanish equivalent have been running across 12 states, including retirement havens like Florida and Arizona, since mid-June at a cost of $6.5 million, according to data compiled by the media tracking firm Advertising Analytics. The firm noted a shift in recent days toward an unrelated Trump attack accusing Biden of supporting the far-left push to defund police departments, although he said he doesn't.
Still, the focus on Biden's age and mental competence continued this week on television sets across the country, backed by a wave of related digital ads asking voters whether Biden “is old and out of it.” A separate television ad produced by a pro-Trump super PAC openly suggests Biden has dementia. The message has been amplified daily by Trump's conservative media allies, despite a lack of evidence.
Robert Blancato, who sits on the board of AARP and recently chaired the American Society on Aging, decries what he sees as blatant “ageist” attacks. Speaking for himself, not AARP, he said such attacks don't belong in politics.
“Not everybody in the world can be a victim of racism, not everybody in the world can be a victim of sexism, but everybody has potential to be a victim of ageism,” he said, predicting that ads focusing on age would backfire on the Trump campaign. “When you get into ageism, I don’t know what base you’re appealing to.”
Yet while there is no known medical evidence that either candidate is declining, age and mental competence remain a key issue in 2020 for both candidates. Should he defeat Trump this fall, Biden, who turns 78 on Nov. 20, would be the oldest first-term president in U.S. history. Trump, who turned 74 on June 14, holds the current record. Both men are prone to gaffes and rambling when off script.
Statistics suggest it's fair for voters to consider age when deciding which candidate should spend the next four years in one of the world's most stressful jobs.
There is a 21% chance that an average man of Biden's age would not survive his first term and a 15% chance that an average man of Trump's would not survive his second, according to a study examining the longevity and health of the presidential candidates conducted by S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The author says it is likely, however, that both Biden and Trump are “super agers” whose life expectancy would extend well beyond average.
While the study did not take into account their health histories, Olshansky suggests that Biden may be in better health than Trump, who Olshansky notes is obese, generally doesn't eat well, doesn't exercise regularly and whose father suffered from Alzheimer's disease.
He said neither campaign should use age to score political points.
“They’re weaponizing age in a terrible way,” Olshansky said of the Trump team. “If the tables were turned and Joe Biden were to weaponize age against Donald Trump, he would have a whole lot of material to work with.”
While Biden has so far resisted attacking Trump's age or mental health, the anti-Trump group known as the Lincoln Project, which is run by several Republican campaign operatives, has recently leaned in. The group produced a video charging that Trump “doesn't have the strength to lead," seizing on footage of the president walking awkwardly down a ramp after a speech last month.
A poll commissioned by the Republican National Committee this spring determined that attacks on Biden's mental acuity didn't sway persuadable voters. As first reported by The New York Times, the poll found that more traditional criticism of Biden's progressive policies and his willingness to raise taxes resonated better.
Public polling also suggests that more voters may trust Biden's ability to handle the rigors of the presidency than they trust Trump's. A Monmouth University poll released last week found that 52% of voters were at least somewhat confident that Biden has the mental and physical stamina to be president, while 45% said the same about Trump.
At the same time, Republicans are concerned about recent polls showing that Biden is doing significantly better among older voters than Hillary Clinton did four years ago.
Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said that attacks on Biden's age and mental competence should resonate with “every American.” He insisted that Trump's team would not back off the line of attack, despite concerns of ageism.
“His mind wanders, he loses his train of thought, he forgets points,” Murtaugh said of Biden. “Americans deserve a president who can handle the rigors of the job. Joe Biden hasn't shown that he can, and in fact, shows alarming signs that he can’t.”
Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates fired back: “If the Trump campaign believes the answer to their precipitously dropping support is to triple-down on yet another smear that's backfired on them for over a year, then frankly, maybe it's not just Donald Trump who's missing something — but also his campaign's ‘strategists.'"